Quetzal

Happy April Fool’s Day! What’s quetzal, anyway? A noun, a verb, a symptom brought on in quarantine for the corona virus?

Glad you asked. The quetzal is a legend, a myth, a member of the trogon family, and one really cool bird. It’s also very, very elusive.

And what the hell is a trogon? Let’s start at the top. Until just now, I didn’t know. The term comes from the Greek and means ‘nibbling’, because quetzals carve through rotting wood to make their nests in tree trunks. The trogon family of birds is an exclusive club: they are the only animal with a heterodactyl toe arrangement. [1] The resplendent quetzal lives only in a narrow range of cloud forests at high elevations in Central America. They don’t migrate, and like altitudes of 4,000–10,000 ft (1,200–3,000 m).

A lot of people think it’s the most beautiful bird in the world. The quetzal was sacred to the Aztecs and Mayans. The Aztecs associated the bird with the snake god, Quetzalcoatl. Kings and nobles wore quetzal feather headdresses for special ceremonies.

And oh my god, those feathers…. The head and back of the bird are a brilliant green, the belly feathers are bright red. The female has more gray on her chest, and black and white in her tail, while the male has incredibly long streaming tail feathers that trail up to three feet (!) behind him. These don’t grow until the bird is at least three years old.

The quetzal’s big, about 36-40 cm or 14-16 inches long. But its brilliant green feathers are iridescent and blend perfectly into the cloud forest foliage. For a large bird, the quetzal is surprisingly hard to spot.

So when we planned our trip to Costa Rica (I write this in March, after two weeks of the virus lockdown, and it feels like a different life time that we took that trip, not just a few weeks ago), we hoped we’d get lucky enough to spot a quetzal. We went to the Monteverde cloud forest region. One day we joined a tour to the smaller and less crowded Curi Cancha Reserve. Amazingly enough we saw a pair of quetzals! Quetzals are monogamous – and there they were, male and female! Thank god for the guides that day, because there’s no way we would have sighted the birds on our own. They’re just too perfectly camouflaged. I only have one photo for you, but hopefully it was worth reading this post to get to it.

We present to you in all its shy glory: THE QUETZAL! This is the female, a brilliant emerald that dazzles the eye. Believe it or not her partner is much, much gaudier

It was magic to see a quetzal pair. We got lucky that day.

NOTES: [1] Dictionary.com explains heterodactyl is “having the first and fourth toes directed backward, and the second and third forward, as in trogons”. Well, what do you know. This is my second new word for the week. Trogon was the first. PS: This post is not an April Fool’s joke! Resplendent quetzal © Jadi Campbell 2020. All photos © Uwe Hartmann. To see more of Uwe’s animal photos and pics from our trips go to viewpics.de.

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